Sometime between leaving work and picking up the kids from school, a woman runs into the mall to buy a wedding gift. She expects the task to be quick and easy. She'll simply check the bridal registry, find an item in her price range and check out at the cashwrap.

An hour later she walks out of the store in frustration. Although she has her gift in hand, the poor customer service cost precious time and makes her vow never to shop at that store again.

Scenarios like this make retailers susceptible to the all-too-familiar customer service nightmares. In such a competitive environment, retailers can ill afford these lapses.

"Customer service is the ultimate challenge that has faced retailing throughout its history," says Larry Meyer, CEO of the Michigan Retailers Association in Lansing, Mich. "Besides product definition, the other definition (retailers) have is customer service."

Stores should obviously have a sufficient quantity of sales associates, but it's the quality of customer service that attracts and keeps customers. "Customer service is not just a warm body," Meyer cautions.

Realizing that customer service can make or break their operations, retailers are seeking ways to find and retain helpful, friendly and knowledgeable sales associates.

Creative recruiting A booming economy along with the negative aspects of retail work - minimum wages, long hours, limited opportunity for career advancement - have steered potential employees away from the retail arena, according to R. Fulton Macdonald, president of New York-based International Business Development Corp., a retail consulting firm.

"Retailers nationwide are starving for qualified sales associates," Macdonald says. "Their availability is scarce due to higher-paying jobs elsewhere."

Like other retailers, Atlanta-based Home Depot reports increased difficulty in finding sales associates. The extent of the problem varies from state to state, depending on unemployment rates and the number of available workers, says Layne Thome, manager of associate services for Home Depot's store support center.

While Home Depot uses traditional channels like job fairs to recruit employees, it also turns to non-traditional methods. The company recruits from adult education centers, targeting stay-at-home moms and retirees who want to work part-time. And at Home Depot University - where customers take classes and receive certificates of completion in various disciplines - the retailer often recruits from its own pool of customers.

"Recruiting from our customer base is probably one of the most innovative ways we find people," Thome says. "The best advice (to retailers) is to be creative in looking for alternative ways to recruit."

Another example of Home Depot's non-traditional recruiting can be found in Rochester, N.Y., home of an institution for the deaf. Because of the large deaf population in Rochester, Home Depot recruits from the institute, ensuring that sales associates can communicate with customers via sign language.

In addition to alternative recruiting methods, incentive programs can help lure potential employees. Says Macdonald, "Large retailers are putting more resources into motivating sales associates, offering sign-up bonuses and other incentive bonuses. Shopping malls are engaging professional recruiting firms to assist their retailers in finding and funneling talent to mall stores."

Quality of life matters Macdonald further advises retailers to indicate that promotions can lead to a career path, and offer morale boosters such as birthday recognition or personal notes from management.

In fact, retailers are realizing that a job is no longer "just a job," that quality of life must be considered for today's employees. In a new initiative called the Retail Work Life Forum, 26 national chains have teamed up to lobby various service industries, like childcare, elder care and transportation.

The forum aims to effect changes that will make employees' lives easier - for example, making daycare and transportation more readily available to employees who work odd hours. Retailers participating in the forum include Wal-Mart, JC Penney, Gap, Publix and Home Depot.

Besides addressing quality-of-life issues, retailers can't ignore salary in today's tight labor market. Macdonald advises retailers to pay employees more than minimum wage.

Home Depot, for one, has heeded that advice. "No one is paid minimum wage," Thome says. "Salary is based on experience, but even a cashier would not meet minimum wage." Other benefits include a 401(k) plan and a stock purchase program, where people who work at least 20 hours a week can purchase stock at a discount.

With 892 stores open and 1,900 expected by the end of 2003, Home Depot also offers room for growth. There are opportunities for sales associates to be promoted to store manager or assistant manager, Thome says. The company grants tuition reimbursement after one year for associates who take job-related courses.

"We are committed to the associates and they are committed to us," Thome says. "We encourage values like doing the right thing and giving back to the community. People want to be part of a company that thinks more than just about itself."

Keeping turnover low While providing incentives aids in the recruiting process, it also helps retain employees for longer periods of time. And industry experts cite another key to retaining sales associates: training and motivation.

"With proper training, motivation is possible," Meyer says. "We will do our jobs well if we have the tools: a skill set and knowledge of the business."

Macdonald notes that proper training includes one-on-one sessions, mentoring, classroom reinforcement, videotaped home studies, and awards for achieving learning benchmarks.

At Home Depot, staff education is not taken lightly. "We have pretty elaborate training," Thome says. "Employees must go to product-knowledge classes and training classes. They have a required amount of hours, but outside of that, they can go to any classes they want to."

During sales associates' first 90 days at Home Depot, they must learn their assigned department as well as the two adjacent departments. Generally, when employees quit, it is within the first 90 days.

While many retailers believe training is essential, some look at it from a different point of view. In the book The Nordstrom Way, author Robert Spector and Nordstrom veteran Patrick D. McCarthy examine the Nordstrom culture and explain how the retailer became famous for its customer service. The book points out that the Seattle-based chain provides little in the way of formal sales training.

"Where do you find such nice people and how do you train them? You don't," says McCarthy, who has been with the company for 30 years and was the chain's top sales associate for 15 consecutive years. "We don't train them, their parents do. We'd rather hire a nice person and teach them to sell, than hire a sales person and teach them to be nice."

According to the book, Nordstrom encourages its sales associates - who work on commission - to be entrepreneurs. Sales associates can be successful at Nordstrom, McCarthy says, because the retailer gives employees the freedom to do whatever it takes to make the customer happy.

"When they come in here, this is a relationship. The sale is never over," says McCarthy, whose database contains names of his customers along with personal information like their clothing sizes and spouses' names.

"We don't advertise that we have customer service, but people talk," McCarthy says. He recounts the story of a woman who left her airplane tickets at the Nordstrom store in Seattle. The sales associate who found them called the airline, then drove 45 minutes to the airport to personally hand her the tickets. "When we exceed your expectations, that's how stories are made."

Retaining sales associates and ensuring good customer service has less to do with training and bonuses, and more to do with how happy employees are, according to McCarthy.

"When you do something for somebody else, you feel better," he says. "It comes back to you. In life, we need to give back, and that's what service is about. Customers see that as a value, even if you are only giving someone directions, or a smile. We need to look around and see what's going on. It's a bigger picture."

Perhaps retailers must embrace humanistic principles to find and retain valuable sales associates, who, in turn, will provide good customer service. It's a challenge retailers are likely to face for the long haul. "We work very hard in the retail industry to be perfect," Meyer says. "We'll never reach that. We can't be perfect, but it is the hill we want to scale."